Nationality: Australian. Born: Adelaide, South Australia, in 1939. Career: Writer-in-residence, Australian National University, Canberra, 1989. Awards: Harri Jones memorial prize, 1971; P.E.N. International Lynne Phillips prize, 1987; Kenneth Slessor poetry prize, 1996. Address: P.O. Box 184, Randwick, New South Wales 2031, Australia.
The Deer under the Skin. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1970.
Hold, for a Little While, and Turn Gently. Sydney, Island Press, 1979.
A Dandelion for Van Gogh. Sydney, Island Press, 1985.
The Life on Water and the Life Beneath. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1995.
J.S. Harry-Selected Poems. Ringwood, Victoria, and New York, Penguin, 1995.*
Critical Studies: By Martin Duwell, in Overland Magazine (Mt. Eliza, Victoria), 106, March 1987; by Rose Lucas, in Poetry and Gender, edited by David Brooks and Brenda Walker, St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1989; "When Worlds Collide: A Brief Response to One Aspect of the Work of J.S. Harry" by Jennifer Maiden, in Southerly, 52 (3), September 1992; "Looking for Some Tracks: Hunting with J.S. Harry" by Marie-Louise Ayres, and "A Parrot and a Fox: Rereading J.S. Harry" by Martin Duwell, both in Southerly, 56 (3), Spring 1996.* * *
The poetry of J.S. Harry encompasses a wide range of conflicting and competing impulses on both stylistic and thematic levels. Hers is a poetic that revels in this array of contradiction, allowing the shifting faces of incongruity, uncertainty, possibility, negation, stasis, and change to coexist in an ever turning linguistic and imagistic prism. This refusal to reduce differences and contradictions to a synthesizing homogeneity is mirrored in the forms and structures of the poems themselves, in their oscillations between the metaphysical and the concrete, the delicately aesthetic or painterly, the deliberately abrasive and subversive. In this context Harry's poetry challenges the boundaries and assumptions constructed about the interaction of life and art, the nature and role of poetry, what it means to be a poet (and in particular a woman poet), and how it might be possible with the available tools of language and imagination to weave together the threads of experience and impression to form a coherent and at least transiently meaningful poetic or life pattern.
Much of the poetry reveals itself to be caught on the horns of a metaphysical dilemma. On the one hand, Harry's work seems to yearn toward notions of a stable identity for the self and the speaking voice in the poems, which would concomitantly imply a point of ontological meaning or presence that might be clung to in the face of change and uncertainty. On the other hand, there is evident an equally strong impulse to expose the naïveté of positing such fixed or transcendent points of meaning, which leaves the poems free to engage in a philosophically destabilized jouissance. While there is an inevitable ricocheting movement between these diametrically opposed positions, I would argue that Harry's poetry seeks out a new and potentially deconstructive mode of understanding, and hence of expression, that is able to sustain generatively—albeit not to reconcile—such differences. In the imaginative spaces evoked between and beyond the formal structures of language, the poet evolves styles and strategies of perception designed to maintain the multiplicities of experience in such a way as to confront on a fundamental level the suffocating linearity and fixity of hegemonic ways of reading and seeing.
Harry most conspicuously seeks to disrupt prevailing assumptions about identity and meaning by a challenge to the codes and structures of punctuation, syntax, and the graphic presentation of the words on the page. To sever her poetic phraseology from the assumed formulations of logical thought progression, she utilizes a range of devices—dashes, dots, additional colons, extra spacing between words, altered margins, typescript symbols and abbreviations, and unconventional uses of upper-and lowercase. All of these function as strategies to disturb the surface of linear narrative, thereby creating "added space" or serving as a means of levering open latent contradictions within the finitude of the text. Such strategies thus make a clearing for other voices within the poetic text, be they the voices of philosophical difference, the unconscious, the emotions, the imagination, or an emerging female-centered consciousness.
In the poem "Parts towards a Meaning," from The Deer under the Skin, Harry juxtaposes a seemingly random and unlikely accumulation of impressions—the "sewers … under victoria street," "the four thousand year old dead," "Soul Pattinson's baskets," "a two-foot boy in red sandals," etc.—in an apparent attempt to generate by the sheer accretion of detail a cohering significance in what might be otherwise overwhelmingly anarchic. The poet also realizes that she herself may "grow four thousand years old /looking" for this probably mythic unifying significance, the "secret name" of the gods, or the ultimate "birthbook of myth and language." Perhaps, however, with the power and talisman of language she can construct, if not discover, a dike wall of meaning to prevent a landslide into chaos and negation. Confronted with the looming depths and uncertainties that puncture the surface of the poem as "eyes press against the edges of things" to reveal the "shadows [which] go back like pansies black black deep into the sun," Harry explicitly takes on the role or responsibility of the poet and asserts,
I have to work to find nails …
the purpose of grass is the purpose of nails is the purpose
of words …
I have to work to feel shaped sharpness grip like grass …
In this poem the desire to see beyond the suffocating weight of accumulated detail is imaged in the conventional terms of a descent, an underwater or chthonic exploration of what may be either knowledge or despair. This movement is echoed by the layout of the words on the page:
: the wrists the ankles know
It is at this point of juncture or gap—"the wrists the ankles"—that the knowledge the poem seeks can be found. Paradoxically, uncertainty, or the point of nonarrival, is the poem's discovery at these moments of support and transition, substance and hollowness. The only words and the only lives "to be believed" must come "shaped as a question," as it is only the question that prizes open the heart of the flower to uncover the risks and the promises of the shadows within and beyond.
Harry's use of the initials J.S. as a writing signature might be seen as a device to defuse or even deny her gender specificity. While some of her earlier poems, such as "How Old Pity Left the Poem" and "The Little Grenade," use neuter or even masculine pronouns, Harry's work seems to gain an increasing awareness of the complex subject position of the woman who writes within an essentially patriarchal social and linguistic system. For instance, the poem "The Baby, with the Bath-Water, Thrown Out," from Hold for a Little While, and Turn Gently, likens the struggle of the poet to find the language to allude to or to shape experiences to her biological capacity and choice to carry a child. Formulations that prove somehow ineffective, worn out, or clichéd are "dropped … by accident" by the poet in the same way as the lost fetus slides from her body and battles its doom-laden way "through the grid /at the bottom of the shower-alcove /… resistant /to being broken up." Not only does Harry liken the poet's struggle to conceive meaning and form in language to the woman's ability to produce independent life, but she also aligns herself with this intensely private experience in direct opposition to an unspecified "them" who would understand neither the experience of the woman nor that of the poet. Perhaps it is "they" who would trivialize such intensely felt loss with the use of clichés such as the title. Harry's poem, however, emerges out of and away from the cliché. Beginning with a colon, it suggests the unfinished or inadequate business that preceded it:
: it will not seem
a meaningful exercise, to them,
to hunt new life
This hunt for new life takes on mythic proportions in the later poem "The Gulf of Bothnia" (in A Dandelion for Van Gogh), itself a distillation of some of the central issues within Harry's poetry. In this unique place "flounder and pike … /… seaweed and freshwater plants" live side by side, thus suggesting an environment or a philosophical framework that will nourish elements that are otherwise antithetical. The gulf, however, has a shifting significance within the poem; "cows [who] drink the sea" can exist there, yet it is also subject to its own tides and to the subtlest pulsations of change in the land or continental shelves that underpin it. It may also be suggestive of the historical or psychological origin of human life as it gives birth to "our imaginary relatives" who "grow tails to rise" in the dimmest regions of collective memory. The possible rigidity of such an equation of the sea with the matrix of life is, however, disrupted by the matter-of-fact tone that reminds us that "we are unable to breathe /in the gulf of bothnia." If there is an anesthetizing nostalgia for this apparent place of origins, or "birthbook of myth and language," where opposites can be maintained without tension, it is undercut by the realization that such a region is no longer accessible or indeed supportive of generative life and thought. Within Harry's personal and poetic terms therefore, the recalcitrant prospect of life within such a place, with its mythic stasis and resolutions, must remain an impossibly utopian, if inevitably powerful and informing, dream.